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Wednesday, January 19, 2000 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: Is Pinochet Too Ill to Stand Trial?
2000-01-19

Panel that Sets FDA Dietary Guidelines Accused of Conflicts of Interest, Racial Bias

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A panel that will provide dietary guidelines for the Food and Drug Administration has been accused of racism and conflict of interest by a group that says the panel members receive financial support from the food industry. The organization Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is suing the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee because it says that many of its members are financed by the dairy, egg and meat industry, as well as drug companies. The organization also accuses the committee of racial bias in deciding its guidelines, because it heavily recommends dairy products as a calcium source, even though many African Americans, Latinos and Asians are lactose intolerant. [includes rush transcript]

The guidelines are significant because they embody the official diet policies of the US government, dictating what is served in school lunches and food assistance programs.

Guest:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! A panel that will provide dietary guidelines for the Food and Drug Administration has been accused of racism and conflict of interest by a group that says the panel members receive financial support from the food industry, from the very sectors of the food industry that they are supposedly making recommendations about.

The organization Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is filing an injunction today against the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, because it says many of its members are financed by the dairy, egg and meat industry, as well as drug companies. The organization also accuses the committee of racial bias in deciding its guidelines, because it heavily recommends dairy products as a calcium source, even though many African Americans, Latinos and Asians are lactose intolerant.

The guidelines are significant because they embody the official diet policies of the US government, dictating what is served in school lunches and food assistance programs.

We’re joined right now by Mindy Kursban. She is the staff attorney for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Why don’t you lay out the issue for us, Mindy.


MINDY KURSBAN:

Well, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services jointly appointed a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to make recommendations for revision to the year 2000 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines are supposed to be revised every five years based on the most current scientific evidence. The committee that was selected by the USDA and HHS is, by law, to be free of any inappropriate conflicts of interest and is also supposed to be fairly balanced in terms of the points of view of the members and the function to be performed by the committee.

More than half of this year’s committee members have inappropriate ties to the meat, dairy and egg industries. There is nobody on the committee who represents the interests of those people who are directly affected by the dietary guidelines, which would include federal food assistance to recipients, because the federal food programs, the nutritional standards therein, are rely — they rely on the Dietary Guidelines. The committee will continue to recommend that every American eat a daily diet that consists of two to three servings each of meat and dairy products and therefore failing to acknowledge the chronic disease disparities and food tolerability differences between Caucasians and people of color.

And we have filed a suit under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, because of the violations in regard to the balance and the conflicts of interest. And we are filing a motion for a temporary restraining order today, requesting the court to prevent the committee from releasing its report until there’s been a final determination on the merits of our lawsuit.


AMY GOODMAN:

I’d like to go more slowly through the conflicts of interest represented on this board. Can you give us some examples?

MINDY KURSBAN:

Sure. To start off, the chairman of the committee, he — all of the committee members there, their primary employment is with a university. Then they have these other relationships outside of that employment. And the chairman is a scientific adviser to the Dannon Institute, which is funded by the Dannon yogurt company. He has also been an adviser to the National Dairy Council, and the Dairy Council, as you would imagine, promotes dairy products for American farmers.

AMY GOODMAN:

It’s an industry group?

MINDY KURSBAN:

It’s an industry group, right. He also organized a nutrition research symposium that was funded by Mead Johnson. Mead Johnson sells primarily dairy-based products. One of the major products that they do have is an infant formula, and Mead Johnson participates in the infant rebate system of the women and children supplemental feeding program, which is commonly know as WIC. And under that program, which is subject to the Dietary Guidelines, Mead Johnson in 1998 was the largest provider of infant formula under the WIC program.

AMY GOODMAN:

So, in other words, Cutberto Garza, who is the chair, is on the payroll as well of Mead Johnson, which is one of the beneficiaries of a dietary guideline program that would advocate dairy.

MINDY KURSBAN:

Right. And just to — actually, he’s not on their payroll. He received money from them to sponsor a symposium that was put on by his department. At the university, where he is a professor in the nutritional department, he received funding by Mead Johnson in order to have a symposium. While that money isn’t obviously going directly — it’s not that he’s an employee, this is — it gives the appearance of conflict that he is, on one hand, accepting money from them, whether it goes into his pocket or promotes his personal — you know, his personal professional interest, and then, on the other hand, he is setting nutritional standards that will affect programs under which this organization, the company, has a significant monetary interest in.

AMY GOODMAN:

I also see that Dr. Garza organized a symposium in conjunction with, sponsored by, funded by Nestle Corporation —

MINDY KURSBAN:

Yes.

AMY GOODMAN:

— which produces dairy-based infant formulas, as we well know from Africa and other developing countries.

MINDY KURSBAN:

Yes, and there’s a concern also because of, which you might be aware of, the whole issue of breast-feeding, and there are a number of physicians who strongly oppose the giving infant formula to these developing countries, because then the mothers don’t breast-feed their children, and there’s also some other issues in regard to that. And so, you know, Dr. Garza is working with two huge providers of infant formula in developing countries.

AMY GOODMAN:

So, he’s the chair. Let’s go right down the list. What about Richard Deckelbaum?

MINDY KURSBAN:

Dr. Deckelbaum was also — well, he was a lecturer by the Nestle Research Center, invited lecturer, and they are, of course, funded by the Nestle company. He has received research donations from Mead Johnson and most recently received a $500,000 grant from Mead Johnson. He has received grant support from the — what’s now called the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which is another trade association representing beef producers, meat packers and food retailers. He served as chairman on the board of trustees for the Slim-Fast Nutrition Institute, which, most of us are familiar with the Slim-Fast dairy-based products to help people lose weight. Those are all dairy-based, again. That’s primarily his involvement. Actually, also for three years, 1989 to 1992, he received grant funding, again, from the National Promotion and Research Board. This is the board that’s funded by milk producers, and most people are very familiar with those milk mustache ads. That’s the boards that’s in charge of that campaign to encourage all Americans to drink milk.

AMY GOODMAN:

Moving from milk to eggs, let’s talk a little about Scott Grundy, another member of the board, that is, the Advisory Committee for making Dietary Guidelines.

MINDY KURSBAN:

Yes, Dr. Grundy has served on the American Egg Grant Review Board since 1973. Again, it’s another sort of trade association funded by egg producers, which seeks to increase the market for eggs and various egg products.

And we also have Dr. Joanna Dwyer. She, for three years, from 1990 to 1993, served on the grant review committee for the American Meat Institute, which is another trade association representing pork, beef, lamb, veal, turkey producers. She served as a member of the scientific advisory group for the same board as Dr. Deckelbaum, this Dairy Promotion and Research Board. And she also had a visiting professorship — she participated in a visiting professorship program from 1990 to 1995 that was sponsored by the National Dairy Council.

Dr. Rachel Johnson — I’ll keep going. There’s a few more. Dr. Rachel Johnson, she received fellowships from Kraft General Foods, which is a huge food manufacturer, and they also have a large amount of dairy-based products. She, in 1996, gave a presentation upon invitation of the National Dairy Council, and she also received a $42,000 grant in 1996, 1997, which, by the way, was the year she would have been selected to serve on this committee. She received that grant from Dairy Management Incorporated, which is sort of like the parent organization of the National Dairy Council, in order to study the effect of milk on schoolchildren.

Dr. Weinsier, Dr. Roland Weinsier recently received a $500,000 grant from Mead Johnson, similar to the one that Dr. Deckelbaum received.

And although Dr. Eileen Kennedy is not a member of this advisory committee, even worse, she is an employee of the USDA. She’s the Deputy Under Secretary of Agriculture with the agency that oversees — the part of the Department of Agriculture that’s overseeing the Dietary Guidelines review process. She serves as a scientific adviser to the Dannon Research Institute.

So, of the eleven members, six of them have conflicts, and then there’s an additional conflict by an employee of the USDA, who also receives other money from the Dannon yogurt company.


AMY GOODMAN:

We’re talking with Mindy Kursban, who is the staff attorney with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, exposing the, to say the least, extensive conflicts of interest on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which really determines the food that many people in this country eat. As you were saying, while many people just look to the Dietary Guidelines as a sort of objective standard for making sure you get some cheese, some dairy, some etc., when it comes to schools, federal programs, that determines what’s bought. So this is big business.

MINDY KURSBAN:

It’s huge business, obviously, for the food industry, and it’s also big business in the government’s actions in regard to how they treat the food industry, as I think that most people are also aware of the extensive subsidies that the government provides to the meat, dairy and egg industries. And then they buy these surplus products that are left on the market that people aren’t purchasing, and then they dump them on our schoolchildren because they don’t have anywhere else to go. They have to do something with these products. And then they take an advisory committee, who they know is going to set nutritional standards for the school lunch program, and picks people to sit on that committee who are from the meat, dairy and egg industries.

AMY GOODMAN:

So, explain exactly what your injunction, your call for an injunction, would accomplish.

MINDY KURSBAN:

What we’re trying to do under the Federal Advisory Committee Act is to have the courts address this issue of the inappropriate conflicts of interest. And also, we’ve requested the court to appoint a member on the committee who can represent the interests of those people who are affected most directly by the Dietary Guidelines, which, as we’ve mentioned, is the federal food assistance recipients. There is nobody on the committee representing what is in their best interest, yet there are six people on the committee representing the interests of the food industry.

So, the temporary restraining order would request that the committee not be able to issue its report until these matters under the Federal Advisory Committee Act have been resolved, so that the court can make a determination on whether the Federal Advisory Committee Act was violated, and if so, rectify the situation as it stands now, which would be to — we would request to reconstitute the committee. If the report is released, then that remedy will not be available, because once the report is released, it will be given to the government agencies responsible for putting out the new edition of the guidelines. And this could all take place before the merits of the lawsuit are even heard. So, we’re basically asking the court to maintain the status quo.

AMY GOODMAN:

Would you say that this Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has more members with more conflicts of interest than ever before?

MINDY KURSBAN:

I really don’t have enough information to answer that. We have requested information on the past committees. They began in 1985 with very little fanfare. There was no concern at that time. But it has grown, as people have become more aware of what the government is doing and more interested in holding the government accountable for what it does, kind of looking behind what is actually there and questioning why is this happening, who’s making these decisions. We haven’t received full information on the previous committees in order to give you an answer to that.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, Mindy Kursban, I want to thank you very much for being with us, again. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, based in Washington, D.C.

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